Dispatch from the Edge of Recession: Job Market Moment... the Elusive Excitement

I have that sick, nervous feeling right now. I just came across a job posting for a place I desperately want to work, here in Atlanta, with an amazing mission and unbelievable combination of my passions, skills, and beliefs. And every single thing they list on the job description I can do now, and would dominate in that position. Writing for the web and published media sources, networking, working with the press and local organizations, planning and organizing in-house documents and memos, social media management,  photography for events and media, group and project work, and a boatload of other exciting things--and above all, believing in the mission of the organization. Seriously, I would rock this job and every responsibility I am given, because it's things I excel in already and have done in many capacities before, but also because it's in a field that I have dedicated two degrees to so far, and both of them fostered my concern for the mission of this organization as well--civil rights, human rights, communication along cultural and racial lines, understanding of one another. I am riddled with excitement, to put it mildly. Suddenly, I have gone from a regular night of searching job listings and imagining my near future in retail once more (and working for seven bucks an hour, woo!), to imagining something far different and much more exciting--working in a meaningful position for a purpose, putting my skills and work ethic to the test and building them further. I desperately want to pour myself into a job. And I really want it to be something I care about, though I have had to make sacrifices in this portion of my goal, because employment is more important than holding out, unemployed, for a noble goal. I am realistic if nothing else. (Hey, it might take a few years of crap to get back to the noble goal. And student loans don't pay back themselves.)

So I have been applying to various clerical jobs, submitting my resume to staffing agencies, saying I'm looking for administrative work. And the recruiters ask me what kind of work I am looking for. The honest answer is any work, at least at a rate to cover my bills. But perhaps that sounds desperate, not ideal--so I'll say admin work, sure! The job fair I went to today had many openings for health care workers, police officers and security professionals, warehouse workers, and for those seeking employment in the fast food industry. It was a depressing picture for someone with a niche degree like Heritage Preservation. Try throwing that one on a staffing recruiter. I try to emphasize my strong administrative skills in the conversation, too.

In the nine months during which I have been applying to jobs, this is only the second one to arise that is here in the city I love, which I am qualified for and which truly, makes me utterly breathless with excitement. I immediately bound ahead in my brain, to having the job, making positive improvements, wearing my beautiful skirts and blazers and representing well everyone who has helped me get to this point. I have had days where it has been impossible to imagine, to conceptualize, my future--what job would I even be doing, and where, and for whom? It is a fast downward spiral when you can't conceptualize whether you will be folding clothes or doing data entry or answering phones, or changing the world in my own small way for an employer I love.

This is only the second job to send electricity down my spine. I read the long description over and over, and each time, I am more confident that I can nail every single bullet point. I am a master of so many of these things already. And when I am on paper, the only thing people see is that I'm a recent grad with no full time work experience, even though multiple, simultaneous part-time jobs have earned me all the skills I have and use in what equals a full-time commitment of my time--and which make me exactly the person for the job. But my mind has already blown past this more realistic doubting part of my brain, because, of course, you're made for this! They'll see that!

That is what I really believed about the singular previous position that I desperately wanted and felt highly qualified for. I didn't get that job. I got an overly formal and way-late e-mail response from some lady I had never spoken to, saying they had chosen someone else. Now, in nine months of scores of job applications and submissions, I am quite used to impersonal rejections and regrets, but this one hurt. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't get it, but I also thought there was a good chance I could. The experience has made me thoroughly exhausted with employers not wanting to take a chance on a passionate, young professional. Heck, I'll work for next to nothing and I really care about the job! And I work hard to boot! And communicate well! What on earth more can you want from a candidate? Idealism? Creativity? Tech savvy? Perseverance? Amiable personality? Strong leader? Organizer? Oh, wait -- I am all those!

This is a public website, and I am fully secure in posting my thoughts publicly, because you know what? I'm a frustrated twenty-something in a tough transition, in a terrible economy, in a niche industry. And I am not going to hide that from employers, professors, parents, friends, strangers. The excitement I feel right now is very real, and I risk heartbreak and sadness all over again for what could become a missed opportunity to perform above and beyond in an excellent position for a great company. I really need to share that feeling with you, because it is the tiny little glimpse of the future -- of producing great things and of the potential I have sitting right here at my desk -- that keeps me from giving up.

The Life and Times of Things

I am absolutely fascinated by the relationship people have with things. I am fascinated by the meaning and value humans add to otherwise meaningless objects. I've written about it before: Why do we keep what we do, discard what we decide we do not want? How do we use things to celebrate and make meaning in holidays? And long after we are gone, what patterns do our consumptive and domestic habits leave behind about our lifestyles and value systems?

This is probably part of the reason I am drawn to working in museums with objects that have been selected to be kept, preserved, valued as historical in some way, and chosen to represent people, moments, and eras past, present, future.

That's also why I wish I had thought of this first.

The concept, the hypothesis, and the execution is brilliant. Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker were apparently pondering the regular, conventional assumption, that what gives an object value is somehow determined by laws of utility, supply and demand, or "qualities intrinsic to the object -- e.g., craftsmanship or design." No, there are more powerful, less explicable forces at work behind the irrational behavior of humans (I myself just finished reading Predictably Irrationaland its author Dan Ariely would agree here) and why and what we value. So they created the Significant Objects project, and drafted a hypothesis: "that regardless of of the thing's aesthetic or utilitarian properties, an object's value can be increased by way of the narrative attached to it."

They sough to find more evidence of this link between ordinary objects and extraordinary meaning.

Glenn and Walker thrift-store shopped for one hundred items, spending a total of $128.74 Then they asked one hundred authors (most pretty unknown names) to write a story about an object, so they would end up with one hundred objects and one hundred stories to match. Then, they listed them for sale on eBay, with the story in the item description (and a disclaimer that this was, in fact, a fictitious story).

When all the items were sold, the grand total of what people forked over for otherwise meaningless objects: $3,612.51. For tchotchkes.

They compiled their whole project and process in a beautiful little book that I purchased immediately after hearing Rob Walker talk about their project on Marketplace. They refer to this as a literary and economic experiment. After conducting three series of the experiments, three hundred items given invented meaning and then sold to interested parties online, they compiled the best 100 stories and their conclusions and thoughts into this book. It's part short story fiction, part economic enigma, part "in-your-face, logical economic thinking."

The experimenters, shall we call them, came up with these categories of significance, to try and determine if these kinds of factors play a part in determining what people might value, and how much they will value it (in an actual monetary amount). The short answer is, it's complicated. The shorter answer is, No; these distinctions don't matter overtly. Neither did the author who had penned the tale.

Neither, really, did the object type, which had been split into these categories: Novelty Item, House & Table, Figurine, Decoration, Kitchenware, Toy, Kitsch, Tool, Promotional Item.

It is befuddling, mysterious, and glorious to browse through the items in this series, examine the item, read the story that accompanies it, and marvel at much, or how little, it went for in the end, on the internet auction block. Sometimes a fantastical, or intriguing tale would only garner $20 from a buyer; other times, stories I thought were a bit throw-away (compared to some) brought in a cool $100 or more. Each item was, by their own rules, purchased for less than $4 originally.

What's also interesting is how now, precisely by being featured in a project like this, objects that had no meaning at all, tchotchkes and trash at best, again have a value and shelf-life, because you are unlikely to ever spot a second of these random, old, forgotten things elsewhere in the world. Pairs, brothers, additional copies produced long ago are now likely to have been long trashed, destroyed, abandoned, forgotten.

It speaks highly of the project creators, Walker and Glenn, that these pieces were so well-chosen and curated to begin with. They limited themselves, for example, from including "mid-century-through-1980s pop culture ephemera," and consciously did not include any furniture, clothing, books, or other things that were deemed to obviously "object-like."

What an entirely enigmatic project. I am so jealous to have not thought of this experiment first.

I spent a whole semester reading and discussing and researching topics in material culture, learning about British tea culture, eighteenth century American clothing culture, white and black spaces on the plantation homestead, hand embroidered crafts made by women living in refugee camps, Puerto Ricans' meaning in their homes and spaces on abandoned plots in New York City, and meaning in punk rock clothing and attitude, among other things. I spent a semester thinking about and researching, asking questions about meaning in quilts, for my own final project. We talked of tchotchkes and trinkets and souvenirs from trips far and near. I should have been thinking more deeply about the stories, the ones we create, the ones we forget, the ones that are passed down to us, the ones we make from our own life experiences.

Valueless objects take up lots of space in our lives, even when we consciously resist such a phenomenon. We can be upset that this occurs, and try our best to live simply. I agree. But I also think it is just a source of too much intrigue and love, sadness and grief, too much human drama for us to ignore those little trinkets that survive and speak to moments passed. That is what we do in museums all the time, after all, use objects to represent was once was, what stories have come before us, what things happened here. Who lived, and what they owned while they habited this earth.

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